In perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the school rankings industry, both Yale and Harvard announced Wednesday that they were withdrawing from the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s best law schools.
Colleges and universities have been critical of the U.S. News ranking system for decades, saying that it was unreliable and skewed educational priorities, but they had rarely taken action to thwart it, and every year almost always submitted their data for judgment on their various undergraduate and graduate programs.
Now both Yale and Harvard law schools have announced that they will no longer cooperate. In two separate letters posted on their websites, the law school deans excoriated U.S. News for using a methodology that they said devalued the efforts of schools like their own to recruit poor and working-class students, provide financial aid based on need and encourage students to go into low-paid public service law after graduation.
“It has become impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the U.S. News rankings reflect,” John F. Manning, the dean of Harvard Law, said in his statement.
The two deans said they had decided to withdraw only after they and “a number” of other schools had taken their concerns directly to U.S. News and been rebuffed.
The news was unveiled in dramatic fashion, beginning Wednesday morning with Yale law’s dean, Heather K. Gerken, posting a statement. Later, Harvard joined in.
U.S. News reacted somewhat blandly to Yale, saying it stood by its “mission” to “ensure that law schools are held accountable for the education they will provide.”
Asked whether U.S. News would continue to rank Yale, Eric Gertler, chief executive of U.S. News, said that the organization was reviewing options.
After Harvard’s announcement, the tone became more conciliatory. “We agree that test scores don’t tell the full story of an applicant, and law schools make their own decisions on the applicant pool based on the mission of the school,” U.S. News said in an email.
But the statement said the American Bar Association still requires standardized tests for almost all law schools. “The rankings are a start, not an answer,” U.S. News said. “Our mission is, and has always been, to provide data on schools for prospective students and their families.”
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The withdrawal of heavyweight institutions like Harvard and Yale is unlikely to topple the rankings industry. For one, only the law schools withdrew from the rankings. And even though U.S. News asks schools to provide their own data, much of the information is publicly available.
“It is unlikely that Yale Law’s action will change the (profit-seeking) behavior of U.S. News leaders unless a significant number of other name-brand institutions follow suit,” Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, an anti-testing group, said in an email on Wednesday.
But, he added, as Harvard joined in, “if a few more brand-name law schools join in quickly, this initiative will have clout.”
The rankings are entrenched in the culture of higher education — with every new annual ranking promoted by many of the schools that decry them. Prospective students have few other seemingly objective, data-based ways to judge schools.
Also, the rankings are perhaps more meaningful to lower-ranked institutions, which often advertise them prominently and depend on them to attract students, than to schools in the top 10, or even top 30, whose reputation and brand recognition are well established.
Yale, at No. 1, is followed in the law school rankings this year by Stanford, the University of Chicago, and then Columbia and Harvard, which were both ranked fourth.
Many critics of the rankings have said that the data can be easily manipulated, and pointed to the doubts this year over Columbia University’s data.
Over the summer, Columbia announced that it would no longer participate in the rankings of national universities, and said it was reviewing its data — which had resulted in a No. 2 spot — after a math professor had questioned its accuracy. The university ultimately admitted that some of its data, including undergraduate class size and the percentage of faculty with the highest degree in their field, had been inaccurate.
U.S. News kept Columbia in the rankings nonetheless but dropped it to No. 18.
Even though Yale Law School has consistently been the top-rated school on the U.S. News list for the last three decades, Ms. Gerken said the rankings had been on her mind as she embarked on her second term as dean.
Asked why she would worry about them when Yale was No. 1, she said: “It’s not about Yale Law School. It’s about legal education and the profession. It’s a moment to step back and think about what we are doing.”
In her letter, Ms. Gerken called the U.S. News rankings a “for-profit” and “commercial” enterprise that is “profoundly flawed.” She said the methodology does not give enough weight to programs like Yale’s “that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession,” and as a result, skews the rankings of law schools that emphasize that work.
She said that 20 percent of a law school’s overall ranking comes from grades and test scores. “This heavily weighted metric imposes tremendous pressure on schools to overlook promising students, especially those who cannot afford expensive test preparation courses,” she said in her letter. “It also pushes schools to use financial aid to recruit high-scoring students.”
That money, she said, could be diverted to scholarships for low-income students.
Moreover, she said, the rankings were misleading in the way they portrayed the employment rate of Yale law students after graduation, an important metric for students who are acutely conscious that they have to start making money to pay off often exorbitant student loans.
Yale awards “many more public interest fellowships per student than any of our peers.” she wrote. “Even though our fellowships are highly selective and pay comparable salaries to outside fellowships, U.S. News appears to discount these invaluable opportunities to such an extent that these graduates are effectively classified as unemployed.”
The metrics also devalued students who wanted to pursue advanced degrees like a master’s or a Ph.D., Ms. Gerken said.
Mr. Manning, of Harvard, said the rankings methodology “can create perverse incentives that influence schools’ decisions in ways that undercut student choice and harm the interests of potential students.”
For one thing, he said, the “debt metric” adopted by U.S. News two years ago might appear to reflect lower debt at graduation because of generous financial aid. But the metric could also mean that a law school admitted “more students who have the resources to avoid borrowing,” he wrote. “And to the extent the debt metric creates an incentive for schools to admit better resourced students who don’t need to borrow, it risks harming those it is trying to help.”
There is currently an effort to do away with mandatory testing for admission to law school, but no final decision has been taken. At the same time, dozens of law schools have moved away from using the LSAT, replacing it with the GRE. Both are part of an effort to boost admissions for low-income students and students of color.
As for the rankings, many of the other top 10 law schools appeared on Wednesday to be holding their fire.
The University of Pennsylvania law school applauded Yale and Harvard “for their leadership” and said that it was “evaluating this issue,” but it did not immediately offer to join in.
Columbia and the University of Chicago declined to comment. New York University officials said they were aware of the action by Harvard and Yale, but “we haven’t made any determination on the matter yet.”
Neelam Bohra contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.